What Anxiety Means and How Christians Can Respond
What anxiety means and what fear means are different. This article by clinical psychologist Andrew Haworth helps distinguish the two and explores how Christians can respond to anxiety in healthy ways.
In order to properly understand anxiety, one must first understand the difference between fear and anxiety. Imagine for a moment you decide to go hiking in the woods. You decide to go on this journey all by yourself. You gather up your gear and off you go. After walking for a few hours, you discover you must have made a wrong turn and find yourself lost. To make things worse, you hear the crunching of leaves and the sound of branches snapping behind you. You quickly turn around and find yourself face to face with a predator, a fully grown grizzly bear. The bear gazes at you with a cold, predatory stare and bares its razor sharp teeth. Your life is in danger.
“Your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for a fear response, is officially on high alert.”
If you are like 99% of all humans, your amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for a fear response, is officially on high alert. Your heart is pounding, sending cortisol coursing through your veins. Your face becomes flushed and you begin perspiring profusely. Your breathing intensifies, pupils dilate, and muscles tense up immediately in order to prepare your body for action, to run or to fight. This is the classic fear response.
What Anxiety Means
Let’s change the setting. Imagine for a moment you decide to go shopping at your local grocery store. You decide to go on this journey all by yourself. You make your list of grocery items you need and off you go. After shopping for a few minutes, you can’t seem to find an item needed on your shopping list. You start to feel flustered. To make things worse, you hear the noise of other customers and feel their stares as you try to compose yourself. Your heartbeat starts to quicken, sending cortisol through your veins. Your face starts to become flushed and you begin perspiring profusely. Your breathing intensifies, pupils dilate, and muscles tense up immediately in order to prepare your body for action, to run or to fight, but from what?
Muscles tense up immediately in order to prepare your body for action, to run or to fight, but from what?
In this situation, you have experienced a fear response nearly identical to the one in the woods but without a true known threat to your wellbeing. There is no bear. This is the classic anxiety or panic attack response.
Anxiety is defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. Often, anxiety is described as a fear response to an event that may or may not happen. Anxiety can manifest itself in many ways including impacting your thoughts, dysregulating your emotions, and disrupting your behaviors.
“Often, anxiety is described as a fear response to an event that may or may not happen.”
I don’t want to give the impression that all forms of anxiety are necessarily unhealthy. The anticipatory anxiety one experiences before giving a speech, performing a dance in front of a large audience, or facing off with a large grizzly bear attack prepares your body for action. This form of anxiety can be quite helpful (particularly when battling a grizzly bear, in my humble opinion). However, when an individual is consumed by stress and anxiety to the point it is disrupting their ability to live a normal life or interfering in their relationship with God, anxiety can be absolutely debilitating.
A Christian Perspective on Anxiety
Now that we have made the key distinctions between fear and anxiety, let us shift our attention to a Christian perspective on anxiety. The Bible offers multiple lessons on how to handle anxiety and our worries. Arguably, the most conspicuous of these lessons comes in a passage in Philippians 4:6-7:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
When I first read this passage as a young Christian, I used to focus singularly on the first line, “Do not be anxious about anything,” and to treat it much like a commandment. I took a hardline interpretation and assumed that, if I was anxious or worrying about something, then I was somehow being a bad or inferior Christian. As the years have gone by, my position has certainly softened. God knows that it is in our very nature to worry and to have anxieties.
“God knows that it is in our very nature to worry and to have anxieties.”
When I read this passage in Philippians now, I feel reassurance from these words. God knows our hearts and our minds. He knows we experience anxiety and provides comfort to us with this passage and others (e.g., Ps. 23:1; Is. 41:10), assuring us that ultimately He will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus if we go to Him in thankfulness and prayer.
I recognize there may also be a temptation by some to take creative liberties or loose interpretations with the passage “Do not be anxious about anything.…” One might be inclined to view it as permission to not care about anything, adopting something akin to a laissez-faire approach to life, feeling like everything is out of their control. In my experience as a clinician, this too is problematic. I have found that it’s better to realize that we have more control over our lives than we often think.
If given the choice between the two approaches, it would be healthier to have the perception that you’re paddling your own boat down the river of life, rather than that you’re going down a river without paddles at the complete mercy of the river current. As believers in God, we know that, ultimately, God is in control and we trust in Him, but even still, God has given us a good measure of free will to make choices, and one of the “fruits” the Holy Spirit grows in our lives is self-control. So, as believers in God, having a helpless, chaotic view of life in which we have zero say in our own lives shouldn’t be an option.
As believers in God, having a helpless, chaotic view of life in which we have zero say in our own lives shouldn’t be an option.
To summarize, I believe that, in order to adopt a healthy mindset with anxiety, we first must be able to distinguish between fear and anxiety. We must be able to recognize the differences between healthy and unhealthy anxiety. Once we’ve done this, we must pray and go to the Lord with all of our stresses and anxieties. We are ultimately responsible for our actions here on this earth and we are guaranteed to face trials, some revealing our deepest anxieties and insecurities. In these moments, we are instructed to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).